Barry is the founder and Professor of the M.Div. program for Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.
There is no better way to preach than going verse by verse through a book of the Bible. I do highly recommend this as the regular preaching in the Church. This does not mean that there are times when a pastor should depart from his regular preaching to deal with an issue or present a topic. There also are times when we are invited to preach or called on for impromptu speaking. I have found this to be a real challenge. The question that inevitably comes to mind is, “What should I preach?”
I was recently traveling to another city and was asked prepare a sermon for Sunday. This may not seem like such a task for you but it is for me. Given that I regularly preach through books and during this time in my ministry, I cannot accept invitations to preach unless they are far in advance, I was in a panic. I should also point out that I work in SE Asia and in a country that uses English as a second language. To further complicate the matter, this country has 8 major language families with over 170 dialects. Fortunately, many people in the cities can understand some basic proper English.
To solve my dilemma, these are the questions I asked myself and have always used to answer “What should I preach?” These are not rules. I offer them as guidelines that have helped me through the years to make this decision. This article is not a “how-to” preach article. I am only making suggestions for “pre-sermon” considerations.
I am not saying that you should seek some “discernment” in the sense that you are waiting for some impression from God or “move of the Spirit” to lead you. I do not deny that such might be possible, but such impressions are not reliable and certainly not guaranteed.
1) Who is my audience?
This one fact will determine a lot about the topic and direction of your sermons. In my short career (20 years now), I have had the privilege to speak on numerous occasions and to different audiences. The first sermon I preached was in a nursing home in the U.S. For several years after that, my primary ministry was preaching on the streets. There is a great deal of difference between people in their senior years and with health problems and riotous drunks. I also have preached in jails (as a visitor, not an inmate). I now have the opportunity to speak at conferences. These are very different audiences. While we cannot know them like we would know members of our Church, we can make some general conclusions.
I have realized, over the years, that who I am speaking to makes a great deal of difference. Granted, we could randomly open the Bible to any place and we would find the truth. But it is more effective to choose a passage that suits the audience. I ask myself who are they and what do they need from the Word of God? Are they likely unconverted and need to hear the Gospel call to repentance? Are they in need of encouragement? Are they seasoned believers or new to the faith? Are they accustomed to regular preaching or starving for the Word?
The goal is not to alter the message to tailor-fit the audience. We should never soft-peddle the message. Neither should shock-and-awe be our goal. We should, like good soul doctors, diagnose the need and apply the right passage as a balm to the wound.
2) What is the occasion?
I have never grasped the importance of the occasion until this past year when I had to preach the funeral of my wife. After a short illness, she died from cancer. I knew her family would be present, the home Church, and many visitors and friends. She had worked in churches her adult life. I understood that many professing Christians would be present. I also know that most churches in the area are not centered around the Gospel and do not have a Biblical view of repentance. Many members of her family are from a Catholic background. The message was clear. This occasion would be a perfect time to speak about death being the result of sin, the need for repentance, and the eternal state of the soul.
If I knew the audience was composed of mature, converted people, then my message would have been very different. Consider the example of the funeral that I gave and compare that to a wedding. One is a solemn, mournful occasion. If the person who died was a Christian, there is also an element of peace and joy. Whereas, the wedding should be a joyous celebration. I have also had the privilege to speak at a birthday party, which is another joyous occasion.
It may not be that there is a formal holiday or occasion but you should consider what is the reason that people are gathered. This might influence your topic. At the least, the occasion will help you determine your tone and character of speech.
3) What is my purpose?
After you consider the audience and occasion, you should ask yourself: “What do I hope to accomplish?” How do you intend to minister the Word to these particular people at this particular time? We want to always communicate truth and to bring God glory. But each sermon should have a particular purpose and goal. What is the goal of the sermon? Having a purpose will help you select a topic as well as influence your delivery.